Pátzcuaro, Mexico – From her milpa (traditional intercropped cornfield), Nancy Rojas explained why she is working to keep all genetically modified corn out of Mexico.
“In Mexico there are 59 native corn breeds,” Rojas told Al Jazeera.
Six breeds and 20 varieties have been identified in the area of Michoacán state in Mexico’s west, where she lives.
“This diversity of corn is the product of traditional agricultural practices of Indigenous peoples – knowledge that has been inherited from generation to generation and that has also been safeguarded by the farmers themselves,” she said.
No food can rival corn in either material or symbolic importance to Mexico, where the ancient grain was first cultivated some 9,000 years ago. As the saying goes: “sin maíz, no hay país” – no corn, no country.
For Rojas, a spokesperson for the organisation Red Tsiri (Tsiri is the Indigenous Purépecha word for corn), if genetically modified (GM) corn is planted in Mexico, the grain’s great biodiversity and deep cultural knowledge would be threatened.
Mexico currently bans the cultivation of GM corn – a status quo the Supreme Court reinforced in October when it affirmed the right of Mexican authorities to refuse applications to plant GM corn.
But the government appeared to signal that could just be the start of a wider crackdown.
In December 2020, a presidential decree was issued seeking to ban GM corn for human consumption by 2024.
The move triggered an outcry north of the border. More than 90 percent of the corn grown in the United States is genetically engineered, and Mexico is the biggest buyer of it.
Some opposed to the ban argued it violated the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) free trade deal. But US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in October last year that he was assured by his Mexican counterpart that the decree would not impede US exports of GM corn to Mexico.
GM corn does have its supporters in Mexico. Some argue that using and growing it is critical for ensuring the ongoing viability of the country’s food supply, especially through the introduction of drought-resistant corn varieties that can thrive despite environmental degradation and climate change that have only become more severe in Mexico.
Ecologist Erick de la Barrera, a professor of plant ecophysiology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a visiting scholar at ETH Zurich, told Al Jazeera that a full ban on GM corn suggests “a paradox”, where “the country that originally domesticated maize would be abdicating further involvement in the innovation of that crop”.
How likely is full prohibition?
Mexico currently imports 16 million tonnes of corn ($2.7bn annually) each year from the US – mostly yellow corn for livestock and industrial purposes.
White corn for human consumption is grown domestically in Mexico. The Supreme Court decision in October was in response to a challenge led by crop giant Bayer after Mexican authorities rejected an import of the company’s GM corn seed. The court upheld an eight-year-old injunction against planting GM corn, the product of a class action brought by farmers, consumers, and environmental leaders in 2013.
Citing the constitutional right to a clean environment, the Supreme Court decision dealt a decisive blow to Bayer and other multinational seed companies. Bayer reportedly said that the decision to reject its import was “unscientific”, noting that the company holds itself to “unprecedented” safety testing and standards.
But the import of corn for livestock (for feed) and for industrial purposes (such as making high-fructose corn syrup) remains a sticking point.
“We have been able to prevent the commercialization of transgenic corn produced in Mexico. However, we receive GM corn in imports from the United States, and that’s an aspect of the battle that seems lost because GM corn imported from the United States is distributed throughout the food chain”, said Veronica Villa, a programme manager with the ETC Group, which monitors the impact of emerging technologies on agriculture and is against GM corn.
Villa also noted that the legal position of any GM bans remains precarious. “The judges ruled cautionary measures to protect native maize varieties, but have not decided whether having GM corn in Mexico is good or bad,” she said.
Agricultural researcher Timothy A Wise said the Mexican movement to ban GM corn for human consumption has had remarkable success, particularly in getting the current government on its side whereas previously “the government used to be literally in the courts with its lawyers on the side of the seed companies”.
Author of the book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, Wise told Al Jazeera that there are many options for both the US and Mexico if the import of all GM corn into Mexico is prohibited. “The US could still sell corn for feed to Mexico,” he said. “It would just need to be non-GM corn. And US farmers are perfectly ready and willing to grow non-GM corn for a market as big as Mexico’s.”
In the meantime, said Villa, the movement against GM corn has won “an important cultural victory in public opinion” – one she believes will continue to influence government policy and consumer choices.
“There has been a big boom in native corn sales as the public avoids industrial corn. This is not just about common native corn being seen as a great national good; it has crossed over into people’s health concerns about what goes into their bodies,” she said.
Meanwhile, advocates like Nancy Rojas and Red Tsiri are still working to rid Mexico of all GM corn.
“The ban on the planting of transgenic corn in Mexico has been good news for farmers and groups that defend and care for native seeds,” Rojas said. “But we know that it is necessary to continue fighting for this ban to expand.”